When the Planned Parenthood Federation of America went looking for a new president in late 1995, they found someone intimately familiar with the challenging reproductive choices facing young women: Gloria Feldt married her college-age boyfriend at age 15 and had three children by the time she was 20. Feldt later continued her studies and, while attending community college, became interested in politics and women's issues.
In 1974 she became the head of a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Odessa, Texas. From there she moved to Phoenix, ascending to the presidency of its Planned Parenthood affiliate in 1978. She remained there for 18 years, increasing fundraising income by more than 2,000 percent and going toe-to-toe with groups such as Catholics United for Life, whose attacks she rebuffed with characteristic feistiness.
At the national office in New York City, the 55-year-old Feldt succeeds Pamela Maraldo, whose controversial plans to shift the focus from reproductive services toward more general family medicine caused her to battle with the Planned Parenthood board. After five months on the job, Feldt sat down with Mother Jones to talk about the new Congress, the Clinton conundrum, and the perils and possibilities facing Planned Parenthood.
Q: How are you different from those who came before you -- Faye Wattleton, for example, who was probably the most visible and charismatic head of Planned Parenthood in the organization's history?
A: Faye was fairly hierarchical, rigid, traditional. I like permeable boundaries. I like to move fast. I'm more entrepreneurial, more flexible. Each one of us has our own style and way of doing things, and it never works to think you're going to follow in somebody's footsteps. I mean, there was Margaret Sanger and Alan Guttmacher and Faye Wattleton, and now there's me.
Q: Planned Parenthood promotes reproductive health care, but in many minds the organization's sole mission is abortion.
A: Actually, most people know what Planned Parenthood does. In a recent survey, we found that 25 percent of women in this country have used Planned Parenthood, most for basic health care and birth control. But because abortion is such a hot political topic, and because Planned Parenthood is a very strong -- and I think credible -- advocate for the right to choose, people think about it in that context as well. That's fine.
Q: What do the 1996 election results tell you about how much of a target Planned Parenthood is likely to be?
A: The results were mixed: We have a pro-choice president but an anti-choice Congress. The House will be a little better, the Senate will be a little worse, and the Senate leadership will be a whole lot worse. On our issues, Trent Lott is much more ideological than Dole was.
It's absolutely incumbent on us to put our agenda forward and let our adversaries justify why they don't support it. Let them run the risk of looking like unreasonable Neanderthals.
Q: Speaking of your agenda: What's going on right now with Title X, the portion of the Public Health Service Act that grants Planned Parenthood about $41 million in federal funding each year?
A: We live to fight another day. The Title X victory was our biggest in the 104th Congress -- an otherwise dismal two-year period. I was there for the vote. When I left at 7 o'clock in the evening, we were 20 votes shy of winning. It passed at 1 o'clock in the morning after Newt Gingrich signaled he was going to vote for it. The moment it passed I realized that the whole thing was absurd -- we used so many resources to just hang on by our fingernails to a tiny program that doesn't begin to address the real family planning needs of American women.
This time around, we need a much broader agenda that says, "Look, folks, you know 90 percent of the people in this country support family planning, and you know that 72 percent would spend more of their tax dollars to support family planning, and you know that every dollar you spend on family planning saves $4.40 in tax dollars, and so we ought to be doing more."
Q: The president says he would have signed the late-term abortion bill if a few things in it had been different.
A: It's entirely possible that he will. And, in fact, there may be a way to find language that will serve the needs of women's health.
Q: You're not opposed to looking at the issue again?
A: I think we're going to be looking at the issue again, and I'd rather we be in charge of how it's looked at.
Q: Was Clinton a good president or a bad president in his first term?
A: I'd give him mixed reviews. He certainly started out well, by eliminating the gag rule on doctors. But when he talks about making abortion safe, legal, and rare, he should talk about family planning, because that's how you make abortion rare.
Q: What about Mrs. Clinton?
A: Well, it's funny you ask, because I just had a really interesting conversation with [writer and former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson] Liz Carpenter and [Roe vs. Wade lawyer] Sarah Weddington about whether Hillary Clinton had done the right thing to back off as she has. She was so good when she was herself. As women have just begun to arrive at a place where you can almost see that equity is possible, it's frustrating to have an enormously intelligent, capable, professional first lady who no longer makes her points explicitly. And she's made some political judgments I wish she wouldn't have. Her speech at the Democratic Convention was so rehearsed, vetted, and so...painful to watch. I know she cares about children, but she also cares about women. She cares very passionately about many other things that she simply wasn't allowed to talk about.
Q: In a perverse way, Gingrich has helped organizations like yours, hasn't he?
A: He's helped a lot, in the sense that he's a boon to our direct mail fundraising. We'd certainly miss him if we didn't have him to attack. However, I would like to get people in less of a reactive mode on fundraising: Here's what we want to work toward, and here's what it's going to cost us to do that.
Q: The House Democrats are an interesting problem for Planned Parenthood, aren't they? House Minority Leader Gephardt and House Minority Whip Bonior both voted to support the late-term abortion bill.
A: What can we do? I think Gephardt is actually pro-choice most of the time. But Bonior is probably not redeemable. Philosophically he's not pro-choice and he's not going to change. However, as I recall, he's supportive of family planning, and so that's where I would seek to work with him.
Q: What are your plans for the next six months?
A: Number one, get the pro-choice movement back in charge of defining the issues. Number two, drastically improve the services of our affiliates. I also want to take on some of the hard issues like sex education and teen pregnancy prevention. We've been so embattled that we've lost our edge there. No organization serves just to survive.
Q: The Christian Coalition, for all its excesses, understands that.
A: You bet. It would be nice if there were a fairness doctrine, but the reality is, if somebody else is putting out ideas that you object to, you can't fault them for using the democratic process. What you have a responsibility to do is use the democratic process more and better. You need to call that talk show. You need to write that letter to the editor. That's the only antidote, because democracy is not about restraining people.
Evan Smith is deputy editor of Texas Monthly magazine.